Football Looks to Play Spoiler in 136th Rendition of The Game
“[The history of] it certainly adds to the environment of The Game, the appeal of The Game, and the rivalry,” coach Tim Murphy said. “What I tell our team, what I believe is, any rivalry game, whether you’re undefeated going in, or — in our case — struggling for some vindication, it’s all about pride.”
In this, the 136th contest between the institutions, Harvard (4-5, 2-4 Ivy) will be adopting the role of spoiler. Precluded from an Ancient Eight crown, the best the Crimson can do is finish fourth. Yale (8-1, 5-1), however, has been slingshotted to the top of the division following a string of fortunate upsets to division rivals last weekend.
The Game, then, features a bit of drama. If the Bulldogs win, it will at worst share the Ivy League title with No. 21/22 Dartmouth. If it loses, Dartmouth would also need to also drop its contest to Brown this weekend — a near impossibility — to catalyze a three-way tie at the top of the division.
“Whether that’s Alabama-Auburn, Michigan-Ohio State, Harvard-Yale, it’s all about pride,” Murphy said. “Pride in your program, pride in your team, pride in your school, that’s what it’s about for our alumni and for our students. It’s about pride.”
But momentum is high in New Haven. Last week, the squad cemented itself in the Ivy League title conversation and earned a national ranking by thrashing No. 18/19 Princeton, 51-14. It had been 142 contests since Yale had won by as much.
Prior to the contest, many thought Princeton to be the clear second-place squad, having lost only to Dartmouth the week prior in Yankee Stadium, in what many believed to be the Ivy League title game. Defeating the only other unbeaten in the division, Dartmouth needed only cruise over two of the division’s weakest teams in Cornell and Brown to claim sole possession of the top spot in the Ivy League.
Then Cornell beat Dartmouth.
The Crimson, while sporting five losses in its 2019 campaign, has not once lost by more than one score. In its four-game skid, the team’s deficits total to 20 total points.
“Honestly, we felt like we should’ve won the last four games we’ve lost,” said captain and defensive back Wes Ogsbury. “A couple of bad bounces, but we can’t dwell on it. Obviously, we have another opponent every week, and this week is Yale, a really good team. We approach this week with a new mindset.”
Since the team’s 32-point loss to Dartmouth at the beginning of the season, the Bulldogs have been playing exceptionally well. Two close contests with Richmond and Penn were buffered by three subsequent routs of Columbia, Brown, and Princeton. Harvard dropped contests to two of these three teams.
“It’s the best Yale team I’ve seen in a long, long time,” Murphy said. “They are clearly playing the best football — offense, defense, special teams — of any team in our league at this point in this season.”
At the helm of the Bulldogs’ explosive offense is senior quarterback Kurt Rawlings. The veteran, who didn’t play in The Game last season due to a season-ending injury suffered against Penn, has returned to play with a vengeance. Rawlings throws with a 62 percent accuracy, accumulating 2585 yards and 24 touchdowns to his name. Yale’s play caller leads the division in passing efficiency, touchdowns, yardage, and average yards per game.
He’ll be throwing against a Crimson defense that has allowed 236.6 pass yards per game, about 50 yards below Rawlings’ average. That defense hosts junior defensive back Max Jones who shares the Ancient Eight lead for interceptions this season with three.
“They have arguably a potential player of the year in [Rawlings],” Murphy said. “He’s been a great leader, he’s a dual threat guy, and he certainly fuels their offense.”
The Crimson’s defense has been as impressive as the Bulldogs’ offense this season. The group boasts the fewest allowed rushing yards in the division, and tops the Ancient Eight in third and first-down performance. Senior safety Cole Thompson leads the group in tackles while senior defensive lineman Brogan McPartland leads the league in sacks with 7.5. Harvard overall leads the nation in sacks. In special teams, the team paces the nation in blocked kicks and blocked punts.
Attempting to gain a foothold against the imposing Havard defensive line will be Zane Dudek. Like Rawlings, Dudek is very familiar with the Crimson. While Rawlings started against Harvard even in 2016, Dudek’s introduction to the Crimson came one year later. The back has played Harvard twice before, leading Yale in rushing yards both previous contests.
Also to watch on the Bulldogs’ offensive front is JP Shohfi and Reed Klubnik. The two are first and second in the Ivy League for yards, respectively. Shohfi, who serves as the sole captain of the squad, boasts 909 yards and Klubnik has 861. For reference, the Crimson’s leading receiver, senior Cody Chrest, is seventh in the division with 600 yards through the air.
This season’s rendition of The Game will take place in the Yale Bowl. With a capacity officially listed as 61,446, the arena holds over double the people that can fit in the Harvard Stadium. Exempting last year alone, The Game has alternated between the two historic Stadiums every year since 1894.
Previously unique to the Yale Bowl was its utilization of grass over the typical synthetic turf on the surface of play. It was only this year that the stadium tore out the dying grass and made the long overdue installation.
“I think everybody in the league is happy for it,” Murphy said. “The last time we played on their grass field it was just a mudder, a slog. Just cosmetically, it looks better.”
The Bulldogs enter the contest with the better record, with a healthy slew of players, and title implications on the line. The Crimson enters with only pride at stake.
“The team is very excited, I’m very excited,” Ogsbury said. “It’s my last game in a Harvard uniform so I’m going to give it all I’ve got. I know my brothers around me are going to give it all they’ve got. It’s not for a championship but we’re going to treat it like a championship game. We’re going to hopefully ruin Yale’s season and do it for the Harvard football name, tradition, the city of Cambridge, and everything else.”
—Staff writer Cade Palmer can be reached at email@example.com.